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HOUSE GUESTS


Lisa has rules: a movie, but that’s all; a dinner, but that’s all; a walk somewhere, a show, a drink out, but that’s all. I’m trying to find a way to break her limits. Tonight she wanted to swim. We’re on the bay side of the island where the waters are easy and the sand thick as mud. You can step in spots and lose your legs in a minute, sinking up to your knees.
We’ve been here an hour and I’m out and dry, but she’s still skimming the surface like a bug, pulling herself farther and farther out and then dipping from sight. I’m in sinking sand trying to sink as far as I can. The lights of town blink on and off in the water’s reflection. The smell of fry oil dwells in the air.
You going to Pacheco’s after this? she calls, treading far out, her voice thin against the wind and carried away.
I tell her no, I’m going to her house.
I saw him trying to surf last weekend, she says. He got so pissed off he broke his board. On her back, she begins a slow swim in.
I wasn’t with him, I say.
He’s kind of stupidly violent, she says. Are you two still going to the empty houses?
Sometimes we go, I say. You should come. It’s fun.
A salty wind sticks to my body and I watch her going under and coming up. A few minutes later she gets to shore cast in orange-brown light. A quiet splashing. The sun’s like a dying bulb seen through a bottle of whiskey, cloudy and flickering through clouds.
I’m gone, she says, stepping through tide pools warm and clear.
Time’s up, she says.
This is ridiculous, I say.
She stands in one large tide pool and sinks down some and I toss a towel and watch the way her reflection is continuously sliced and rebuilt on the rippling water.
Pacheco has three new surfboards and can barely stay up. He lives in this bungalow near the beach and is selling the house he and his wife lived in. She’s been gone two years and is so much less than a memory for me, only a name; for Pacheco, I can’t say. The wind here whips off the sea, the sky a raucous hot summer blue with blooming blue clouds, but the waves are shit. Pacheco goes out every day and tries. He shows me the bruises, the sand-scraped skin. He tells people he lives in a beach house and surfs and smokes pot because it’s better than having a life. I don’t know what this means, but I go see him. It’s what I’m supposed to do.
This is what we do: we find who’s vacationing, then we break in. We don’t steal, we only use: their food, their cable, their computers. We get to live some other life a minute, be who we want to be.
Pacheco’s stretched out on a leather sofa, sunburnt and thin. We’re playing Scrabble in the Parkers’ home, an older couple who’re up north for the summer: it’s a dark, damp place, with condensation on the windows and no air-conditioning so it feels and smells like being in a crotch. Out the back windows is a deck, and beyond, the ocean, a full moon above it. People shuffle by on the beach, flashlights lighting like holy lamps, searching out sea turtles. I’m here and abiding until I leave for home and get to think about how to break Lisa’s limits.
Tofu, I say, arranging the squares on the board. Fifteen points.
I need something very definite and dramatic to happen, Pacheco says. I need to throw these Scrabble pieces across the room and yell, You all fucked my life.
Please don’t, I say. I’m winning and this isn’t your house.
Two years ago, he told me his wife fucked some other guys. I later found out she just started playing racquetball and going swimming. I told Pacheco this and all he said was, Is that really what you think of me? She lives alone now; she could be anywhere.
I need a new mountain bike, he says, disregarding Scrabble. I think that would fill some need.
Your turn, I say.
If not a mountain bike, then watching someone drown.
He’s brought a speed bag and has it hanging from a doorframe and he goes to it and smacks it with quick punches, running it against his fists. Outside, the flashlights move up and down the beach. He has the bag thrumming, humming quick to his hands. With a hard right, he smacks the bag so it clutters and viciously bounces. He’s mixed martial arts; my father tried to teach me to box when I was younger and then tried to watch boxing with me when I got older and I now get to regret not doing either. Pacheco turns and comes back to Scrabble. He flings a pillow from the sofa which I block. It hits the coffee table and nearly knocks over a vase.
Be careful, I say. I have a smoothie machine you can borrow, I say.
A smoothie fills many of my needs.
Letting me borrow your truck will do it for me, he says.
Sold, I say. Your play.
Do other people want to see other people ruined? he says.
You like making us something we’re not, I say.
Later, with the house still dark and humid and outside great palm leaves shuffling in the wind, he says: Look at me. Thirty years old. I have sixty dollars in the bank. Do you realize we’re still children?
Outside, the ocean’s a constant hushing echo. The flashlights have stopped and the moon hangs above the ocean, a sick cloudedness.
I want you to bring that Lisa girl around, he says.
Can’t, I say. She dislikes you. She more than dislikes you.
She doesn’t know me, he says.
I can’t be around him more than a few hours. I tell him I have to go and he tells me he wants to test our balance, which means he wants to do this kind of wrestling: he clears out the Parkers’ living room so nothing breaks; we match right feet up, each with a left foot back, a wide stance for balance; our left hands are free, our right hands joined; low to the ground, calves and hamstrings burning. Go, he says. We try to throw each other off balance. First to move a foot loses. His right hand crushes mine, pushes me back, and my weight swings to my back left leg, then he pulls me toward him, my whole body shifting to my front right leg and I’m done and down on him and we’re in a pile on the floor. Again, he says. You can do better than that shit.
I lose, lose, lose, and after each time I go down I want to break a vase across his face.
When I get up to go, I’m sweating and he gives me a Gatorade from the Parkers’ fridge. He says, I do need to borrow your truck on Tuesday. I’ll give you money. I hold the sweaty Gatorade; he feels he has to pay and I agree he probably does. I give him what he wants.
Some other night I drive over to Lisa’s late after work. I’ve closed the restaurant down and prepped for the morning. The golf course sparkles under the water of sprinklers. An old man walks his dog along the beach road and the quiet here is more than some can be comfortable with. The beach houses facing the ocean seem like broadforeheaded men, looking out for some ungettable thing.
At Lisa’s, she’s got the Ping-Pong table set up in her living room. This means that after a best of seven in Ping-Pong, I’m going home. I get a Coke from the fridge and she bounces the Ping-Pong ball on her paddle, following me. She’s got this bandana in her hair, a pair of sweatpants on, a T-shirt of a bunny holding a machete.
You with Pacheco? she says.
Nope, I say.
She gets on her tiptoes to turn off the ceiling fan and her T-shirt stretches up, shows me her stomach, a ring in her belly button. I flip on the lights, pull the blinds. Her apartment is spare, a white room with new cream carpet. Little carpet ball fluff. She’s big into coffee and has used mugs out on tables, the TV, the mantel. She’s told me there’s a kind of coffee bean that has to be found in the shit of a goat for it to taste right. The goat has to eat it. I was confused until I realized the goat didn’t actually chew the bean. She’s told me this with such passion, such knowing want.
We unfold the table, play three games, four. The crack and pong of the ball fills the room. I’m up three–one, so I let her catch me by knocking backhands to her forehand so she can convert. And she does. I have this vision of a life with her. I want to stay.
Don’t let me win, she says.
I’m not, I say.
It’s patronizing, she says.
Would it be patronizing if I said I was letting you win because I wanted to be around you longer?
Yes, she says. I think.
It gets to three–two, three–three, then I win the last game. We fold the table back up. She turns the ceiling fan back on. I’ll see you tomorrow at work, she says.
This is ridiculous, I say.
Tomorrow at work, she says.
A man comes from the apartment upstairs and knocks on her door and then comes right in. Let’s watch a movie, he says. This is Fred, who does not matter at all to me.
Yeah, I say. I’m tired. I don’t want to drive. Let’s all watch a movie.
I’ve got some new Netflix, Fred says.
Fred’s got Netflix, I say.
Lisa looks at me: Your time is up, she says. Fred, if you want to stick in that movie, go ahead.
I stay standing in the pale family room, Fred unsure if he should start setting up the movie or not. Lisa moves her body across the room, turns around in the kitchen in socked feet, her legs crossing. Crosses her arms across her chest. I’ll see you tomorrow, she says to me, then spins on the kitchen floor again and walks to the back bedroom.
Good night, Fred says to me with a stupid grin.
It’s a Thursday night and Pacheco wants to go to the Heights, this part of the resort town that huddles the golf course. We drive, windows open, the damp smell of salty air. Palm trees line the main roads. Spanish moss swings from everything. I once dropped a pile of the moss on Pacheco’s bed to make him suffer some. He gave me a black eye for it. This was when Molly was around. Molly with the great swinging breasts and the terribly pale face, as if carved from wax. She liked Pacheco more around other people. I dropped moss on their bed when I learned Pacheco had been filching my dope. The moss has these bugs in it, you understand.
We get to the office. Pacheco’s got the desperate eyes for Lisa, but I make him wait in the car.
Ask her to come with, he says to me out the car window.
I pretend I don’t hear him and go in.
She sits at her desk, tells me which homes are vacant. She’s got on the work clothes: white starched collared shirt, black suit pants. Her hair is amazingly straight, like crazily impossibly straight and black.
Try the Meyers’, she says. They’re gone for three weeks.
It’d be easier if you gave me the key, I say.
I’d give you a key if you weren’t doing this for him.
You should be nicer to Pacheco, I say.
He should stop being such a whiner, she says. He’s got a temper.
He’s harmless, I say. He could use somebody paying him some attention. Really. It’d be nice if you at least let him know you see him.
How the fuck old are you two? she says. You think you’re using him, she says. He’s using you.
We’re all using somebody, I tell her. That’s something they would say in a movie, right?
And then you’d walk out that door and tip your hat at me and maybe wink.
Then you’d give me a blow job.
Oh, that one has me, she says. That one definitely has me joining you morons.
At nine, we pick up Lisa and the sitting in the car gets confusing. Pacheco doesn’t realize he needs to let Lisa sit up front, so I have to tell him, and in that time Lisa says, No, no, I’ll just sit in the back and let you boys give each other hand jobs. Pacheco looks at me and I don’t regard him. I want to smack him. Lisa kind of lounges across the entire backseat. Not in work clothes; she’s got this sort of library thing going on. She texts on her phone and I imagine it must be Fred, the guy who lives above her apartment. I found myself falling in love with her leather anklet one day, then her legs, then her jean shorts and frayed edges, Ping-Pong, cruelty, rules, and then, once I noticed Fred, everything else.
We should just go to the Meyers’ first, Lisa says from the back. I got something else to do tonight. You boys only get two hours of my time.
That’s not how it works, Pacheco says.
The first house is a stone ranch Pacheco picks out. My dad lived in one like it. We wait a few houses down from this ranch. We see people out walking dogs, lights in houses going off and on, figures in windows, all these lives going by quiet. I like the sitting part, the waiting part. The waiting part, the part right before you touch the door handle and it comes open, that’s almost as good as being inside. I used to like coming home to my dad’s house and being the only one up. Up at three a.M. and listening to the house do its breathing, quietly walking by his room, some woman over. Now the house is empty and I don’t know what to do with it.
I need to be a lawyer or a doctor, Pacheco says.
Lisa rolls down her window, rolls it up, rolls it down. She stretches out and all I can see of her are her delicate feet hanging out a window. That anklet.
I always wanted to work in an office building, I say. Where there is a clearly defined thing I always have to do and then instead of doing it, falling asleep in the supply closet.
Instead you’re a chef, Lisa says.
I need to save people from serious life dangers, then betray them, Pacheco says.
Instead you work in a bank, Lisa says.
When we’re done waiting, Pacheco goes. His skinny figure ducks around the back of the dark house. How he was ever in mixed martial arts is incomprehensible. Yet he’s put me in a hold I could not escape from and took my breath and put me to sleep. A minute later Pacheco’s back in the car.
Nope, he says.
Some houses have a key hidden, a window open, an easily picked lock. Not all of them though, not even most of them. We’re persistent. We’re that bored.
We find a two-story angel, a pink thing, lightless inside. No way in. Then: a brick job with a window everywhere, but nothing. Finally, a castle, some kind of pillar sticking up where a fireplace might be. It’s the Meyers’, the first one on Lisa’s list.
Your turn, Pacheco says.
I check the door then under everything: the flowered mat, the pots of flowers, the bench leg, then in the mulch beneath a couple rocks. I go around back. There’s a pool back there, skinned with leaves. There’s a sliding glass door, patio furniture, and this fake statue in blackface. I check under him and we’re in. See, Lisa says.
We make drinks; open the cupboards; spread out cheese and meats and bread that’s not bad yet. We light up the big-screen and keep the lights down or off. These places, they’ve got dimmers usually, and we sit in half-dark. A good silence sweeps up through our hearts and we’re kings and a queen in a minute. Even Lisa goes around admiring, grinning. We use the good china that’s propped up on little plate-stands in glass cupboards. I rub the rim of my glass and make it sing. How these people live is unfathomable, the depths of their joys and sorrows or the lack thereof. The house makes us better: we share our food, our wine, we clean our messes, we put the toilet seat up, we wash our hands, we do the dishes, we put away the food, we arrange everything as it was. One thing, though, we change. We’ve turned paintings upside down; we’ve switched vases on end tables; we’ve moved jewelry from jewelry case to nightstand; we’ve left a shoe in the middle of the room; we’ve left the television on; we’ve put a pair of her panties in his sock drawer. We leave a bit of ourselves behind. I wish I could say this was my idea, but it was Pacheco’s. My idea was to smoke a joint and leave that smell in the house.
Let’s change all the candles, Lisa says. Switch places.
Later, we get bored and the house is a house. It always goes like this. Pacheco says, I want to ruin these people’s life. He’s taking down a joint, the smoke clouding up the room. He’s lying stretched out on the floor, I’m on the sofa, Lisa’s at the window watching the leaf-lined pool.
Defecating on their bed would ruin their life, Lisa says. I have to get going, boys. Your time is up.
I want her sickeningly. I’m tired of Pacheco and him being there at all, him even existing at all.
Defecating on their bed might scare them, but not ruin them, I say. You’d have to do something way more drastic.
I wish we were animals, Pacheco says. I can’t play this way anymore.
You don’t have the moxie, Lisa says.
We’re not men of action, I say.
You’re passive men, she says. And as a woman, I’m the one who’s just here. This life is not for us, we’re just guests in it.
We have no moxie, I say.
Speak for your fucking selves, Pacheco says.
Please, I say. You’re the worst.
He passes me the joint, eyes all swampy and sad. I wonder what happens if we get caught, he says.
That’s more like it, I say.
We can’t get caught, Lisa says. Me and him are employees.
I go to the bathroom, the master bathroom, up three stories, which has a Jacuzzi and a kind of sauna, but not to go to the bathroom, just to get away from Pacheco. The master bed is a four-poster with a thousand pillows. Like my father’s. My father used to box and he tried teaching me. He built his house, he had an earlier marriage annulled, he didn’t cheat on his women, he invested his money well, he had a broken nose from boxing in college, he fell asleep driving home from the coast and wrecked his car and killed himself. I got some money and the house. Sitting there on the four-poster is like sitting in the dream of the life I wish I wasn’t living. I turn on the ceiling fan, thinking that’s amusing.
It’s three stories I have to descend to the basement. I go through each room and want to never leave. When I get to the basement, I hear hard voices, and at the bottom of the stairs I see Pacheco’s skinny figure in the dark atop Lisa. She’s telling him to get the fuck off her and Pacheco’s got her in some kind of hold and she’s getting louder, telling him that he’s hurting her.
You said you want to see what I do, Pacheco says. You want to know what mixed martial arts is.
Get the fuck off me, she says. He’s got her pinned, knees atop her chest, a forearm at her throat. I’ve never been that close to her. Her legs are kicking air. Her face is red, veins cutting through her neck.
I stand at the bottom steps and back up one step and feel some flip in my stomach, some sick excitement, something that feels like when you slip off the high dive, when you think you might miss and yet somehow know no matter what you’ll hit water even if you hit board first. In a moment, I’ll go in there and push him off her. In a day, Lisa will not talk to me anymore. In a month, she will not see me anymore. In a year, she’ll be a memory, another person I get to regret the losing of. But not yet. I stand motionless and needful to make this last.
This is what I do, Pacheco says.
Do you see? he says.
Do you want me to let you up? he says


by Alan Rossi

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